Last week, I set out to write an overview of the Microsoft announcements and interesting products from TechEd 2011. The resulting article, What I've Learned (So Far) at TechEd 2011, was thus somewhat of a failure since it really covered only two products: MultiPoint Server 2011 and Windows Phone 7 "Mango." Sorry about that. But here's a wrap-up of the other interesting news from TechEd 2011. And as you'll soon discover, there was a lot more happening at the show.

Virtual Machine Manager 2012

Microsoft bundles a basic virtualization admin console in Windows Server 2008 called Hyper-V Manager. But I've always felt that the more full-featured Virtual Machine Manager (VMM) product--which Microsoft sells to enterprise customers--should be the tool that simply comes with WS08/R2. Now that I've seen the next VMM version, VMM 2012, I have a slightly altered plan: Take the original VMM and put it in WS08/R2 as before. And then sell VMM 2012, but rename it to something like Cloud Manager, or Fabric Manager, or whatever. The reason? VMM 2012 is a huge product that does so much more than manage virtual machines. In fact, virtual machine management is just a part of the product, much like VMs are just a part, or component, or broader private cloud solutions.

System Center Configuration Manager 2012

Speaking of products that are maturing and improving at a heady clip, the 2012 edition of System Center Configuration Manager (SCCM) offers some timely changes, especially around device management. Basically, if your users want to use mobile devices--smart phones, tablets, whatever--that have Exchange ActiveSync (EAS) compatibility, you're going to be able to use SCCM 2012 to manage them now, requiring things like on-device and storage encryption, complex passwords, and so. There's much more to SCCM 2012, of course, but that seems like the big deal to  me, and it should help usher in an age of heterogeneous device usage at enterprises that previously pushed back against this tidal wave because of security concerns.

Windows Azure

I had a Windows Azure update briefing at a reviewer workshop on the eve of TechEd--Azure being Microsoft's take on platform as a service, or PaaS--but it wasn't until I discussed Azure with Microsoft Technical Fellow Mark Russinovich a few days later that the enormity of this solution kicked in for me. Truth be told, I've always had a blind spot when it comes to Azure, and while I appreciate Microsoft's efforts over the past few years at trying to overcome this, it wasn't until this past week that I really got it.

There are a lot of things going on with Windows Azure, of course, but from a platform perspective, the biggest technical difference between Azure and hosted or on-premise versions of Windows Server is that Azure needs to be available all the time, and so its architected specifically for that need. That is, at some point, you'll need to service Windows Server, and when you do that, the server and its services are effectively offline for some period of time; many Windows Updates require a reboot, for example. With Azure, however, the OS is distributed and componentized. So Microsoft can service instances of each component individually, and while doing so, no users should experience any downtime at all.

This also means that Azure can be updated on a rolling basis, with new features added over time as they're completed, and not in huge bumps with each release, as with Windows Server, which is effectively on a three year release cycle.

Microsoft promises 99.95 percent uptime with Windows Azure, and while Russinovich couldn't say where it fell in real world terms, he said that it had met this guarantee since Azure went online for paying customers in January 2010. This leads me to believe that the future of server versions of Windows lies with Azure, and not with what is now the traditional, old-school server products we've grown up on. Surely there are architectural learnings from Azure that could be applied to the better managed on-prem installs we're now calling private clouds. This is an area to watch going forward.

Windows Small Business Server 2011 Essentials and Office 365

I've written about both Windows SBS 2011 Essentials and Office 365 multiple times before, but putting them together is a success story unseen since the invention of the Reeses Peanut Butter Cup. It makes perfect sense, right? Combine Microsoft's simplest-ever, low-cost server for small businesses with its best-ever, low-cost hosted email, collaboration, and communications service and you've got a winner.

While the details of how this work will require a bit of imagination--it's basically a SBS 2011 Essentials add-in that doesn't exist quite yet--it's simplicity itself. Existing SBS users can be mapped to Exchange accounts (and vice versa), while new accounts are populated in both places via an integrated wizard. This is small business functionality in a box, assuming you can get over the notion of a cloud service in a box. Just go with it: This is going to be compelling stuff, especially for those startups and small businesses that never, ever thought they'd be able to handle the cost or complexity of a rich server infrastructure.

Visual Studio Lightswitch

As an engineering company full of programmers, Microsoft has never been able to fully walk away from its software development roots and it has spent an inordinate amount of time trying to convince admins that, yes, they too can be programmers. So the company has made efforts along the lines of VBScript, WMI, PowerShell, and so on, all of which have benefitted a tiny minority of admins while thoroughly scaring the bejezus out of the rest.

How do you top that, you ask? By making a developer tool called Visual Studio Lightswitch (final branding TBD) that is, as billed, "the simplest way to create business applications for the desktop and the cloud." And I'm sure it is. It's just that even the simplest way to do this is pretty fricking hard, especially for those who didn't spend 4 years taking CSE classes in college.

Lightswitch basically helps non-programmers connect data back-ends to GUI front-ends, which is a worthy enough goal. But it's too hard to use, typical users will eventually run into walls, it doesn't target the web, and my understanding is that Microsoft is actually going to try and charge for this.

I'm sure that Lightswitch project types in traditional Visual Studio versions will eventually see some success. But like Power Shell before it, this standalone product is well-designed but ultimately misguided for most, I think. I'd love to be proven wrong on this one.

License Mobility: Licensing for the cloud

Here's a weird little area to ponder: Microsoft already has a fairly byzantine but always improving set of licensing terms for businesses that go by such names as Enterprise Agreement (EA), Software Assurance (SA), and so on. But with the world moving increasingly to cloud-based solutions--and not just cloud-based, but hybrid solutions in which some on-prem and some hosted solutions are used together--Microsoft is adapting its volume licensing programs to address this change.

The result is something called License Mobility, and while it was formally announced at MMS back in March, I somehow missed it at the time. The plan is as simple as it is pragmatic: Microsoft is allowing its EA customers to mix and match existing licenses between on-prem and hosted resources, and that's true whether the hosted solutions are in-house ("private cloud," sort of; it's not actually that simple) or external ("public cloud") with a third party hoster.

Here's a typical example: You've been hosting Exchange Server internally, and using Microsoft's best practices guidance, you move that infrastructure to a virtualized environment in-house. You can pick up one or more of those virtualized servers, give them to a third party hoster and have them host them either on dedicated hardware or virtualized, your choice. (This is still a private cloud in Microsoft's view, by the way.) From a licensing standpoint, you don't have to do a thing. But you can take advantage of the hoster's scalability advantages.

There is a discussion to be had around why this kind of deployment will make more sense for some companies than a true public cloud offering (like Office 365), but the point here is that EA (like SA) is always evolving, and for those customers that take advantage of such volume licensing programs, Microsoft says they're "cloud ready." Fair enough.

Final thoughts

If you had told me that ahead of time that TechEd 2011 would have little in the way of "hard news" announcements, I might have been less excited going into the show. But this show may one day viewed as a turning point, or milestone,  in our ongoing move to cloud computing. It was at TechEd 2011, I think, where cloud computing came of age from a Microsoft perspective, and its widespread plans were laid bare. With a few exceptions--such as SCCM functionality like app deployment and device management that needs to be ported to the cloud via Windows Intune as quickly as possible--most of the pieces are already in place, no matter which deployment types (on-prem, hosted/cloud, or hybrid) you prefer. And even in those areas where Microsoft has work to do, it's not like the competition offers anything along these lines. In fact, Windows Intune rightfully won a TechEd best of show award (two, actually) this year, and as I've noted in my own Windows IT Pro cover story, even the first version of this cloud-based management solution is top notch.

Point being, Microsoft's cloud entries are going to turn heads and, more important, convince IT decision makers and pros to give up their out of data preconceptions. The computing world is moving online at an ever-increasing pace, and when it comes to business services, no company is moving as aggressively as Microsoft. That was the message I got at TechEd 2011.